All Blacks ring the changes
September 19, 2007
Unheralded All Blacks flanker Chris Masoe gets a rare taste of the rugby big time when he starts on the blindside flank ahead of a resting Jerry Collins in Sunday's World Cup test against Scotland.
Veterans Reuben Thorne and Anton Oliver have also been handed starts in the forward pack while centre Conrad Smith and right winger Doug Howlett win key selection battles in what is close to the strongest New Zealand team.
Just three players who started in the 108-13 thrashing of Portugal in Lyon last weekend have been retained -- Masoe, Smith and lock Williams, who will become the only player to begin all three pool matches.
More significantly, there are only four changes from the side who opened the campaign with a 76-14 win over Italy in Marseille -- with Smith, Masoe, Thorne and Oliver introduced.
All of Masoe's eight previous starts have been on the openside flank but he will wear No 6 in a highly mobile loose forward trio alongside captain Richie McCaw and No 8 Rodney So'oialo.
Samoan-born Masoe has been regarded as an impact player and backup to McCaw since his debut two years ago.
His biggest starting assignment was probably against England at Twickenham when McCaw was injured on the 2005 Grand Slam tour.
Former captain Thorne will make his first appearance of the tournament at lock, having missed the opening two matches with a hamstring strain.
The absence of he and lock Keith Robinson, who is still battling a calf strain, has stretched the All Blacks' resources and coach Graham Henry was clearly keen to see Jack and Collins given a break after starting in each of the first two games.
While those two selections are about managing players' welfare, more significant could be Oliver's selection ahead of Keven Mealamu as the starting hooker.
In fact Mealamu, who is one cap short of 50 tests, hasn't even made the reserve bench, with that role filled by Andrew Hore.
It had appeared Mealamu was on track to regain the first-choice hooking role at this tournament, a position held down by Oliver for much of 2007.
However, Henry has gone back to his stronger scrummaging option this week, possibly in response to the rusty start to the tournament of the All Blacks scrum.
Carl Hayman will pack down at prop, despite missing some elements of training early this week with a bruised calf.
Out wide, Howlett and Sitiveni Sivivatu have again denied the claims of Joe Rokocoko, who looked electric in his two-try performance against Portugal.
Smith gets another crack at securing centre, with his main rival Isaia Toeava on the reserve bench.
The other centre option, Mils Muliaina, is out this week nursing a hamstring strain.
That, in turn, guaranteed Leon MacDonald the fullback berth and he will play his 50th test.
Yesterday McCaw said the team to face Scotland would nearly resemble the side earmarked for the quarterfinals onwards.
"I'm picking this week will be fairly close to it. A few injuries here and there might change things as we go on," he said.
"It's been the case for a while, there's quite a few positions in this team that are a bit of a flip of the coin in terms of who plays."
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